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Voice Awards Blog Week: Supporting Military and Veteran Families and Caregiver (May 23)

Voice Awards Blog Week: Supporting Military and Veteran Families and Caregiver (May 23)

On Tuesday, May 23, our theme focuses on Individuals, Families and Reintegration Challenges .

Today, we pose this question to our community:

Service members returning from deployments often face various reintegration challenges. What has helped you and your loved ones reconnect and improve the transition home following a deployment?

Discover these personal stories of reintegration and transition from Dole Caregiver Fellows below:

“Learn to be the Tortoise” by Dole Caregiver Fellow Corrine Hinton

You’ve heard the story of the tortoise and the hare, right? The tortoise grows tired of hearing the hare boast about how fast he can run, so he challenges the hare to a race. The hare, overconfident in his abilities to run circles around the tortoise, takes a nap halfway through the race. The tortoise, in spite of his lumbering pace, never relents and wins when the hare wakes up too late to beat him. The lesson here, of course, is that being the quickest at something does not always yield a positive outcome. In fact, sometimes “slow and steady” wins the race.

During the first five years of our marriage, my husband – an enlisted infantry Marine – deployed three times to active combat zones: twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. His first deployment was the most difficult for me, because the whole experience was new. I could not have known it then, but his first deployment would be the easiest. His enemy engagement was limited, and although he saw some action, he was almost as safe as if he were stationed directly on the FOB (forward operating base). Despite a lower amount of deployment stress, he still came home a little different.

Driving was one of the most noticeable changes. In a combat zone, “dumb drivers” get Marines killed. When he was behind the wheel, he wanted everyone out of his way. I had to stop him, on more than one occasion, from getting out of his truck to confront another driver who failed to maintain the speed limit or didn’t use a blinker to signal an intention to turn. He hated being stuck at red lights, because of the feeling of being “boxed in” with no safe exit strategy. I would watch him as his hands would clench the steering wheel, and his eyes would start their frantic search for where to go “just in case.”

Even his digestion changed. After months of rehydrated MREs, bland foods, and a steady diet of mostly carbohydrates and caffeine (thanks to the abundant supply of Rip It energy drinks), his body had adjusted both in terms of what and how much it could process. My husband knew enough not to gorge on burgers or pizza or beer the second he got back in country. Moving too quickly would produce disastrous results. He needed to retrain his body to accept what he wanted to do to it, and that retraining would take time and patience.

And yet, we didn’t take the same approach to driving. He went straight back to sitting behind the wheel, and the consequences were the same kind of uncontrolled explosion that would have happened if he had rushed his digestive system.

Assisting my husband with his reintegration after each deployment took time, and as his partner and the key person responsible for helping him reintegrate, I had to learn. I had to know that he couldn’t just leap into driving right away. I had to remind him that driving should come in small doses to gauge his reactions to particular situations and that, for at least the first little bit, he shouldn’t drive alone. I had to learn that while a welcome home party might sound like a good idea, being stuck in a small space surrounded by a bunch of people in a loud environment wasn’t good for him. Instead, we warmed up with family dinners, graduated to a small BBQ gathering (outdoor spaces worked better for him), and then we could handle going to or entertaining a larger number of people. If friends or family insisted on welcoming him home, we invited them over individually and on his timetable not theirs. This also required that our friends and family learn about the challenges of reintegration and to respect his needs (and ours) above their own.

As a military family, the most important lesson we have learned about post-deployment reintegration is that, in all things, we must learn to be the tortoise. Daily habits, mindsets, behaviors, communication: these all become ingrained in our service members during their deployments. Over the course of months (in some cases, many months), deployed service members learn to operate within their environments. For those most directly engaged in combat or in life-threatening situations, this learning is especially vital. These habits become the most difficult to modify. The learning that occurs during a deployment can take time, so it should stand to reason that when service members return home from a deployment, some of what they’ve learned isn’t as applicable in civilian contexts. Helping my husband to readjust his habits and responses required us to be the tortoise as much as we wanted to be the hare.

 

“A Time to Sit and Watch” by Dole Caregiver Fellow Patricia Ochan

What has helped me is learning to listen and go with the flow! Plus of course I am thankful to our Pastor and his wife for offering support and prayer, I am also thankful for my husband’s friends who stood by us.

I remember receiving a phone call and the shaky voice on the other side so full of excitement saying “Mrs. Ochan the seven months deployment in Afghanistan is finally over and the marines are now in Germany! It’s only a matter of hours before you see your husband, thank you for being a supportive spouse”.

Seven months of waiting had been so long. I remember feeling so happy and thinking about all the surprises I was preparing for his return. I thought about driving him to the beach for a week, I thought about taking him to all his favorite restaurants to eat and drink whatever he wanted, I thought about calling his mother in Uganda and asking her to make a surprise call the day he walked through the door of our house. I was so excited and words can’t express exactly how I felt at the time, there was also some panic because I really wasn’t sure what to expect since this was my first deployment experience.

I sat down and thought to myself, what if I just did nothing and watched and learned! After so much thinking, that’s exactly what I decided to do. My husband arrived at exactly 6:00 p.m, myself, our son and his two fellow marines that had come back two months earlier from their own deployments, hugged him and carried his bags and welcomed him home, he gave my son and I big hugs and kisses. I was filled with tears of joy; it was a very special moment, as we walked to our hotel room on base in Jacksonville, NC. Soon as we arrived at the hotel, my husband and his friends sat down ordered for pizza and beer and then the stories begun. It was then that I realized I had made the right decision to watch and listen. I sat down next to my husband who was carrying our son on his lap and talking with his friends about their experiences,  they talked for hours and I was happy to see my husband smiling and full of energy., I was learning a lot that I probably never would have if I didn’t just sit and watch. I felt as though I had been deployed with them just from listening to their experiences, I learnt about my husband’s fears, difficult times and how much he missed home. I realized how important his friends were and I was so thankful they were there with us.

I also let our pastor know that my husband was back home and he and his wife came to visit on two Sundays. This was so helpful because my husband had completely lost interest in going to church. I was thankful that I had the pastor’s wife to talk to every time my husband was moody and isolated and she encouraged me to give him his space and pray for him quietly. Those days were tough because it was hard to talk to him when he was moody but I am thankful that he withdrew and kept to himself because he didn’t want to show our son that he wasn’t in a great mood. I also discovered that he would call Uganda and talk to his mom when he was feeling down so I gave him his space. Transition was tough, but the silence taught me how to be patient.

 

“The Hard Return” 

by Dole Caregiver Fellow Precious Goodson

My husband’s return from deployment to Afghanistan was a reunion of mixed emotions. My husband was home, but noticeably different. When we met on the field and I welcomed him home, ours was not the reunion of tears of joy and hugs and kisses I had envisioned – I had them, but he did not.  He looked good, and healthy – but seemed distant. The man that came home was a stranger to me, and the dull, sinking feeling that I had about this realization would become more familiar as time passed. This truly was not the reunion I had imagined.

The first challenge I faced upon my husband’s return from deployment was facing and accepting the realization that my husband had been injured during combat and would need a great deal of care. The decision to either stay home with my husband or return to finish out the year as an elementary school teacher was one of the most important decisions I have made in my life. I didn’t realize how important it really was, in fact — my decision changed the course of my entire life.  

My husband’s reassignment to a medical unit to undergo medical treatment began a series of other things to deal with that were continued and ongoing challenges we had to face together, including the  intense schedule of medical treatments themselves. Our change in routine now also involved the adjustment to military life and compliance with military protocols, rules, and requirements established by his medical unit.  We made nearly daily visits to the hospital and outside medical clinics, for example, and the list goes on … in other words, daily demands carried with them a new set of requirements that were a companion to our new life and routine.

We faced numerous other, more personal and very difficult communication issues and relationship readjustments right from the beginning of my husband’s return, even before PTSD and TBI began to surface.  At the same time, the challenges of reintegrating into our immediate community took a toll on us both, often demanding much patience and understanding that I hadn’t been prepared for. No doubt he hadn’t been either.  Before receiving any diagnosis of combat-related, mental health conditions, my husband would attempt to engage with others in the community, but he could no longer get along with other people. When he went out into civilian work, for example, he would get into altercations with others. What was especially difficult at the time was the fact that we didn’t know why this was so.

We eventually received medical guidance advising us that my husband wasn’t yet able to engage in activities with others, due to his unpredictable rage outbursts and mood swings. He also experienced serious depression, which was another impediment to his being able to reintegrate back into society. He often complained that his mind constantly raced about what had happened in Afghanistan and played back images of what he had seen, done, and experienced there. He never was able to forget the loss of the soldiers he had known or the dangers they all faced on a daily basis.

All of these things sent my husband into a downward spiral. His daily challenges since returning: Getting up every day. Opening the blinds. Living in the now. Experiencing the light of day. Leaving the house.  He would admit, even today, that his mind is still in Afghanistan. These changes have dramatically changed our lives and routines.

THINGS THAT HELPED US RECONNECT & IMPROVE TRANSITION

With the help of community – medical, faith, non-profit, government organizations– we are working to overcome these challenges. Truly a village is helping us.  While living on the Army base and upon my husband’s assignment to a medical-hold unit, we were connected with a Soldier Family Assistance Center (SFAC), which provided a range of thorough and comprehensive services and support to my husband and me. My husband’s assignment and our change of routine and environment were uncertain, and the SFAC center at Ft. Stewart provided the information and resources we needed to adjust to our new lives. Through SFAC, my husband and I were connected to a counselor, who began working with us to overcome the deployment communication and relational issues.  We were taken through a marriage curriculum guide, given tools to apply and practice at home, and more importantly, given the hope that this was just a season of readjustment that would get better. However, the challenges grew more difficult.

As time passed, my husband was reassigned to return to our home to continue to recover from his injuries. I then took on much greater responsibility for his care as the duties that were originally handled by the military now fell in my lap. I now, for example, was fully responsible for managing his very intense medical calendar – a job that had been previously handled by the military staff.  But, I had my husband. He was here in my presence, and that was good and enough. These were only a few of the many new and evolving challenges we faced each day and are still working through every day. But, the care we receive from the community and government organizations, such as the comprehensive services of the VA caregiver support program, are welcoming and helpful, and ease much of my anxiety and burden.

Our faith community, neighbors, family, and friends have all offered abiding support to my family as we walk this road of recovery. In addition to these individuals and groups are the many organizations, both government and non-profit, that have stepped up and offered help and support, and are helping us even now, to reconnect as we walk this road of recovery together.  

My husband and I have had the chance to re-connect in many ways and on many occasions— on a therapeutic recreational retreat, in a welcome home celebration, etc.  During an early occasion, the Army’s Strong Bond weekend retreat, we were encouraged to renew our vows for the first time since he had returned from Afghanistan. The entire time since he had first returned, I had felt numb because I had started to recognize that something was very different about him; but it was so early after his return, that I could not pinpoint exactly what had changed in him. Looking back at that period, I now realize that I carried my numbness of a marriage that had been suspended in time – his deployment to Afghanistan marked the end of our marriage and the man I had known as my husband. His return, however, marked the beginning of a road to recovery, a road to integrating back into society, and a road to the hope of our marriage being restored.

A number of government and nonprofit organizations have provided retreats that have been very helpful for us as we’ve sought to learn about ways to help ourselves through the long road to positive change and adjustment.  In 2011, for example, just one year after my husband’s return, we attended the Higher Ground: Idaho retreat, which gave my husband and me the chance to re-unite in very important ways. We were encouraged to look into one another in new and intimate ways and learn how to  breathe deeply and release the stress and tension of what was waiting back home: the medical appointments, the treatments, the four walls that closed in with PTSD rearing its ugly head.

Some other forms of recreational therapy and readjustment retreats that have been helpful to us include: Warrior Beach Retreat, Samaritan Purse: Operation Heal our Patriots, Wounded Warrior Tennis Clinic, Center for Relational Care and Eagle Rock Camp.  Wounded Warrior Project’s Couples Odysseys have included communication and team- building activities to encourage communication.

Organizations in the community have also offered support to my husband and me, and I have learned ways of asking for help— something that is often difficult for many people, including me. I have almost always received the support, guidance, and information I’ve requested, and am grateful for the many people who have showed us kindness, consideration, and compassion and understanding as we’ve gone through these years of change. And, through prayer, faith, and community, I am confident that we will be able to make the adjustments we need to make in order to restore our lives and our life together. Doing so will continue to require us to keep inventing the new normal for us since deployment. It’s a challenge we’re now much better prepared to take on each day.  

“Letting Go So I Can Hold On” by Dole Caregiver Fellow Jeannette Davidson-Mayer 

How Expo Markers Saved Our Military Family by Dole Caregiver Fellow Jeannette Davidson-Mayer